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How late should you play when you’re pregnant?

The question has arisen in German orchestras as a result of a law designed to protect expectant mothers and unborn babies. Germany has the lowest birth rate in the Europe and the fastest shrinking demographics, so you can see why politicians are concerned.

The Mutterschutzgesetz (MuSChG) decrees that a woman cannot be required to work during her last six weeks of pregnancy. If she insists on coming to work, the employer has to put in place a whole range of protective measures to shield her from, for example, high noise levels. This is causing much furrowing of brows in orchestras. An article in the May edition of Das Orchester (not online) shows how they are trying to cope.

This is, without doubt, an enlightened piece of legislation, but I’m not sure how sensible it is for musicians. There are plenty of cases where a singer has given birth between two acts of an opera without harmful effects (except for the audience, which had to wait around and accept a second-act substitute). I often see musicians in advanced stages of pregnancy playing dreamily on stage to the benefit of all around them. Civilisation has advanced several light-years beyond the time when expectant mothers were put in purdah for the duration.

Shouldn’t musicians be exempted from this mollycoddling law? In the absence of a specific medical concern in an individual case, is there any reason a musician should not be allowed to play – if she wants to – up to the last minute? naked-and-pregnant

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Comments

  1. There are, of course, extreme variances in how women’s bodies are affected by pregnancy, especially during the last six weeks. Women whose pregnancies are more burdening need the protection of this law. The noise clause was written to protect women in factories or mines where the decibel levels can remain extremely high for an entire 8 hour shift. The high dynamic levels in orchestral works generally only last a few minutes. When orchestras raise maternity leave issues, the motives are often specious.

    These undifferentiated laws were long used to justify excluding women from orchestras, especially legally guaranteed maternity leave before and after the child’s birth. This was solved, in part, through changing the law to paternity leave – the family can opt for the father to stay at home with the baby.

    In a 1996 interview in Der Spiegel (a large German news magazine,) Sabine Meyer, one of the world’s premiere clarinet soloists, commented on the issue of maternity leave and its affect on women and orchestras:

    ” …oh God, the same old story. Naturally it can happen that a pregnancy doesn’t proceed as unproblematically as one expects. And so? That can’t be a reason for not hiring a woman. Men, through accident or sickness can also be suddenly absent. I felt great during my two pregnancies, I never played better or more beautifully! Even in the eighth month I was standing on the stage.”

    Meyer was also disdainful when asked about the belief that maternity reduces musical quality:

    “Rubbish. Children can enrich a musician enormously, give her strength, improve her expressive capabilities. One is quite quickly back at one’s performance level. It is a question of organization–and by the way, also on the part of the orchestra.”

    Meyer’s views have come to be shared by a wide spectrum of European society so it is rare for orchestras to raise the maternity leave issue, though the topic seems to rise from time to time.

  2. Ben Byram-Wigfield says:

    I do remember going to see a certain singer playing Carmen while visibly pregnant. Not sure it conveyed the right sentiment for the role.
    In the late stages of pregnancy, I’m not sure how any singer would have the breath control. (Speaking for those who tell me of the difficulties.)
    However, my mother played harpsichord continuo only a week before I was born. But life was cheap back then.

  3. Here’s my experience on this topic, which I happened to post on my blog today. http://pianessa.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/animal-theme-piano-concert/

  4. I have two children so it goes without saying that I’ve been pregnant as they were not found in any cabbage patches and no storks brought them.

    I thoroughly believe that it should be up to the mum-to-be to decide when her maternity leave begins. Some expectant mums sail through pregnancy trouble free and positively bloom, and others have problems from beginning to end. Every pregnancy and every woman is different. There can be guidelines, but to try and force anything onto a woman will only add stress and that is not good for her or her unborn baby.

    I managed to sing (after a fashion) right up until both my children were born and it was a wonderful way of counteracting heartburn. My breath control was compromised, and I’m glad I did not have any professional gigs on, but as for not singing: well that would have felt like loosing a limb!

    One of the biggest advantages with this approach was how easy it was to comfort both children by singing to them once they were born.

    The problem with employment regulations is that the vast majority of them are written by men who, however well meaning can’t truly understand what it is to be pregnant because they don’t. There are enough problems with women presuming that other women are going to experience pregnancy “just like I did” without the sex for whom it would be a medical miracle trying to second guess things. Listen to what the mum-to-be is saying, and let her decide.

  5. “Germany has the lowest birth rate in the Europe and the fastest shrinking demographics…”

    This is simply not true. While below replacement, as of 2011, Germany’s birthrate was the same as that of Spain and higher than that of Cyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, and Romania, with Hungary having the lowest birthrate in the EU. Source: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php?title=File:Total_fertility_rate,_1960-2011_(live_births_per_woman).png&filetimestamp=20130129121040

  6. José Lastarria says:

    Wasn’t there a case in Frankfurt recently, where a flautist wanted to continue to the hilt, citing the fact that playing Mozart was not like Strauss, decibel-wise? She won her case and Bild Zeitung ran the headline ‘Die Flötistin darf weiter blasen’. Be that as it may; I’m just impressed that a German, er, redtop runs a story about classical musicians.

  7. Helen Tuckey says:

    Lovely story about Babar, Polly! No one worries about whether pregnant women should do housework or shop, so why not participate in the paid workforce for as long as we choose? I played professionally during 3 pregnancies and taught as well, and resumed teaching one week after the birth in most cases, played a string quartet performance two weeks after one child. There was a shortage of replacement players on my instrument available in our town at one time, consequently I chose to keep playing then when I was a week overdue. In end stages with viola, scroll has to go somewhat higher for rapid position changing, so elbow can move across body, that’s all. Freedom of choice is vital. I agree with everyone above!

  8. What’s with the photo Norman? Does it add any weight to the article, or is it in case we have forgotten what a pregnant woman looks like? For someone who has in the past railed against the marketing of pretty young violinists in wet T-shirts it’s a puzziling addition to an otherwise reasonable piece.

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